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Single fathers have highest risk of early death

Single fathers more than twice as likely to die early than single mothers

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Single fathers appear to be far more likely to die prematurely than either single mothers or partnered parents do, claims an observational study* that tracked more than 40,000 people for 11 years, published today in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Although the Canadian study could not identify specific causes of death, it found that single fathers were more likely to lead unhealthier lifestyles and that health professionals could help target this group.

Single-parent families are becoming increasingly common globally due to growing rates of divorce, separations, and couples having children outside of marriage.

In the UK in 2016, it is estimated that 10% of its three million single-parent families were headed by single fathers and in 2011, more than 2.6 million families in the US and 330,000 families in Canada were headed by single fathers.

Despite this, previous research on single parents has largely focused on single mothers, and no study so far has compared single fathers and mothers.

Therefore, a team of researchers led by Dr Maria Chiu of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and University of Toronto, Canada, set out to examine mortality in a large population-based sample of Canadian single fathers compared with single mothers and partnered fathers and mothers.

They used data on 40,490 people who took part in the Canadian Community Health Survey, including 871 single fathers, 4,590 single mothers, 16,341 partnered fathers, and 18,688 partnered mothers (average age of 41-46 years).

The participants completed questionnaires, giving details of their lifestyle and sociodemographic status, including their fruit and vegetable intake, physical activity, and binge drinking.

This information was linked to their administrative health records to identify medical conditions, how often they used health services, whether they died, and cause of death.

After an average of 11 years follow-up, 693 people had died.

Single fathers were more than twice as likely to die over this period (5.8 deaths per 1,000 person years), compared to partnered fathers (1.9 deaths per 1,000 person years), and single mothers (1.7 deaths per 1,000 person years).

Partnered mothers were least likely to die over the follow-up period (1.2 deaths per 1,000 person years).

At the start of the study period, single fathers were older, had a higher prevalence of cancer than single mothers and partnered parents, and were more likely to have cardiovascular disease than single and partnered mothers.

The authors said that while the leading cause of death for single fathers remained unclear, single fathers were more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles, for example, eating fewer fruit and vegetables and being more likely to binge drink than single mothers and partnered parents.

Lead author Dr Chiu said: “Our research highlights that single fathers have higher mortality and demonstrates a need for public health policies to help identify and support these men.

“While our study does not identify the exact cause of this, we did find that single fathers also tend to have unhealthier lifestyles, which could be an important area to address to improve health in this high-risk group.

“Doctors’ appointments could be an opportunity for doctors to engage with single fathers to help them to improve their health.”


*Chiu, M et al. Mortality in single fathers compared with single mothers and partnered parents: a population-based cohort study. The Lancet Public Health. DOI:10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30003-3

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